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Thursday, 20 March 2014

Cheltenham 2014 - the aftermath (part 3)

On Thursday and Friday of the Cheltenham Festival 2014, it was my turn to be at the course. It is the annual pilgrimage: a couple of days with old friends sharing plenty of Guinness, more than a few laughs, and the odd tear. Not all could be with us this year, but we are hoping for a full complement in 2015. From my point of view, I consider Thursday to be the best day’s racing of the Festival.

The day opened with the JLT Novice Chase over 2m4f. This was only the 4th running of this interesting intermediate distance chase and I’d made my mind up some weeks earlier which horse was going to carry my money: TAQUIN DE SEUIL. I have to admit that, watching from the stands, I thought the horse couldn’t win before 4-out as he’d made so many jumping errors and jockey AP McCoy was already hard at work. But, on the run-up to 4-out, he found his way and quickly put himself into contention. He was very game (under a hard ride) and did just enough to hold off the renewed challenge of long-time leader Uxizandre. It was a bold effort for the 6yo Uxizandre to try and make-all, but it was a change of tactics brought-about by a poor run on 21-Feb when 5th of  6 at Warwick. A winner over 3m1f as a hurdler, he probably found the ground a bit quick as 3 of his 4 wins have come on soft ground. I’ve rated this race thru’ the consistent 3rd-placed Double Ross whom I’ve judged to have run to 149, and it looks like the handicapper has done the same. As such, TAQUIN DE SEUIL ran to about 151+ in my book but there is potential for an improved rating once his jumping is sorted out, altho’ he doesn’t look like a Gold Cup horse to me. Not so Uxizandre, who looks like having more to come when racing over 3-mile on soft as a chaser.  

The Pertemps Final (handicap) hurdle is a race I look forward to having been on the winner a couple of times in the past few years. Not so this year, as the winner was the well supported 9/2 fav FINGAL BAY.  Given he’d beaten dual Festival winner Simonsig in Dec’11 at level weights after which he’d been rated OR153, and he’d not been disgraced as a novice chaser (ran-out on 3rd and final chase outing picking up a tendon injury which kept him off for 429-days), he looked the proverbial “good-thing” in this off OR148 even tho’ that meant he was carrying top-weight in this competitive handicap. This performance suggests FINGAL BAY is as good as he ever was and, as an 8yo with a chase rating of OR146, he should be followed.  You have to feel sympathy for Paul Nicholls sending out the 6yo Southfield Theatre to be 2nd with 11st 11lb. He’d been a very progressive novice hurdler last season, but appeared to have plateaued when 3rd in the Wincanton qualifier on Boxing Day in December. The break since has benefitted him, and connections felt hard-done-by losing this in the photo. He’s well thought of at home, and expected to make into a decent chaser next season. This race was won in a time faster than the World Hurdle run later in the afternoon which, to me, puts a question-mark over the value of the form in that Grade 1 race.

Onto the Ryanair Chase, and here we witnessed what I consider was the performance of the Festival from the winner DYNASTE who had the highest chase speed rating of the Festival, by a long way.  Trainer David Pipe captured his 2nd Grade 1 event of the Festival and, in my opinion, had DYNASTE run in the Gold Cup he’d have won that race. He absolutely bounded up the hill and I reckon he’d have won by a lot more had his rider wanted to. This was only his 8th chase race and, so long as he stays away from soft/heavy ground, he looks to be one of the best chaser’s in training, probably 2nd only to Cue Card at this sort of trip. My money was on Al Ferof who ran his 3rd 160+ performance this season but, as in his novice season, his form has tailed off. If I were Nicholls, I put the horse away to come back fresh for a tilt at the Paddy Power in November, a race he won off OR159 in 2012, as he’d run off only 3lbs higher. In 2nd was Hidden Cyclone, who had shown his liking for the C&D when 3rd in the Paddy Power last November – in fact the 1st-5 in the Paddy Power all ran well at this Festival with Rajdhani Express (5th in the Paddy Power)  taking 3rd place here.  Always highly tried, he’s not quite top-class but is a consistent sort but may have found this ground too lively (6 wins from 8 runs on soft ground) and he was never going to show the stamina to hold the winner (only 1 win from 6 starts beyond 2m4f; but 9 wins from 13 starts at 2m4f or less). Rajdhani Express won the novices handicap chase last year off OR140 and followed-up 39-days later with an emphatic win at Ayr (Scottish National meeting). He is a horse that has to be fresh to run to his best, and it was interesting that he came here off a 117-day break. Hunt Ball looks back to his best, and he will be very interesting if kept to this sort of trip NTO, as he doesn’t stay much further.

Onto the World Hurdle and another Grade 1 event. This year’s race was centred on the comeback of Big Bucks and whether he still had the ability to win as an 11yo. After what looked a promising run at the trials meeting in January, I thought the horse had it in him to do it again. However, by the day of the race, I had come to my senses and realised that the Cheltenham Festival is not a place to be putting faith in 10yo+ horses.  This race was run in a time 5.30 seconds slower than when Big Bucks won in 2012, or approximately 21-lengths slower on similar ground. The time was lost mainly in the 1st-half of the race, during which the pace was pedestrian. The race was won by MORE OF THAT who I’m sure did not have this race on his radar when winning at Wetherby off OR130 on 2nd November. He followed that up win another win at Haydock, and you have to wonder where this leaves the runner-up that day, Blue Fashion, who was running his UK debut for Nicky Henderson and hasn’t been out again since. It was his next race when winning the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham in December that put a tilt at the World Hurdle in the frame and he didn’t disappoint, looking even better on this first attempt at 3-miles. My opinion is that he stayed this trip best of all and it will take a very good horse to lower his colours over hurdles at this trip. The runner-up Annie Power is likely to go chasing next season, as is the 3rd placed At Fishers Cross, and that means the 3-mile hurdle division is wide open for domination. I’ve rated the race thru’ the consistent Zarkandar who I rate at 160, which puts MORE OF THAT on 169.

In each of the 3 years that I’ve been issuing my Cheltenham Festival Bulletin, I’ve written “whatever David Pipe sends for this has to be considered” when previewing the Byrne Group Plate. Do I follow my own advice? This year I did not advise a selection in the race as I was bamboozled by the 23-runners; but perhaps I should. The winner was David Pipe’s BALLYNAGOUR who had been the 7/2 fav for this race last year. Running off a rating of OR140 (3lb less than in 2013) he carried only 10st 9lb thereby meeting both of the weight trends in the race (under 11st, and rating between OR128-141).  The horse is apparently tricky to train, is reported to have bled on his last 2 runs, and has to run very fresh – hence he came into this off a break of 117-days. Whatever, I’ve never seen a handicap chase won at the Festival as easily as BALLYNAGOUR won this. He hacked-up winning by 8-lengths, with another 6-lengths to the 3rd.  What makes the performance even more impressive was that Colour Squadron in 2nd was the 5/1 fav having been identified as a “blot” on the handicap by many. You have to feel sorry for Colour Squadron who has improved with every run yet still remaining a maiden over fences. BALLYNAGOUR has been raised to OR155 for this win, but that may not be enough to hold him. I’d expect to see him next in the Paddy Power Handicap Chase at Cheltenham in November, which will probably also be the autumn target of Colour Squadron. Coming in 3rd was Tatenen (beaten fav for the 2009 Arkle) with possibly a career-best effort. He loved the ground (don’t go near him on soft going) and this 2m5f trip (never won beyond 2m7f) and he could be worth bearing in mind at Aintree next month in the Topham handicap chase. This race had plenty of depth, and Johns Spirit put in another improved run to be 4th.  He doesn’t have a natural Aintree target as he doesn’t stay 3-mile and I can’t see him going for the Topham. Finally, 5th placed Third Intention gave a good plug for the RSA winner O’Faolains Boy, but he probably found this trip a bit short and, having run 2nd to Dynaste in the Mildmay Novices Chase at Aintree last year over 3m1f, he could do better than Johns Spirit who ran 3rd in the 3m1f “Listed” handicap chase that takes place before the Grand National at Aintree. Of those behind, Bless The Wings has not run well since winning at Newbury on 30Nov12 off OR145 tho’ he did show promise of a return when on suitable good-to-soft ground at Ascot last November. He’s now slipped to OR137 and, when getting the right ground over a 2m4f or 2m5f trip, he could scoot in.

The day’s racing came to a close with the Kim Muir handicap chase for amateur riders.  Being for amateurs, choosing your rider is just as important as selecting your horse in this race and, sure enough, the best riders dominated proceedings. The winner SPRING HEELED was ridden by MR RP McNamara who has vast experience in the saddle. Ms Nina Carberry rode the runner-up Cause Of Causes, and she has even more experience. In 3rd was Roberto Goldback and he was ridden by Gold Cup winning amateur, Mr Sam Waley-Cohen. With this in mind, I made Buddy Bolero my selection in the race as he was ridden by Ms Katie Walsh who is one of the most experienced amateurs in racing. Buddy Bolero is also trained by David Pipe and came into this race on the back of a good win over hurdles, and the horse had also run 4th in the 4-mile NH Chase at the Festival last year, so I assumed that stamina would not be a problem. Unfortunately, it was the ground that was a problem for Buddy Bolero as it was too quick for him. The winner SPRING HEELED was making a return visit to Cheltenham having run well till 2-out over 3m3½f off OR142, so this 2-furlong shorter trip was perfect for him. He had not enjoyed the soft ground LTO but, even so, came into this race 6lb worse off with the runner-up here Cause Of Causes. No Irish trained horse had won this since 1983, but both 1st and 2nd were Irish trained and both were well fancied by connections. However, Cause Of Causes (being a 6yo) could not overcome the age stat of no winner in 20 years being younger than 7yo. This pair finished well clear of the 3rd horse, and I think this form looks very strong. Ballabriggs won this race before going on to Grand National glory the following season, and I can see SPRING HEELED doing the same for his talented Irish trainer Jim Culloty.

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